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by Terry Heggy

May 18, 2020

How hard should you swim after a long hiatus?

Are you salivating at the thought of getting back in the water? Craving that comforting hint of chlorine currently missing from your skin and hair? Yearning for exercise to offset your addiction to double-peanut-fudge-lump ice cream?

Regardless how excited you are to resume your domination of your workout lane and renew the friendships you’ve missed during your time away from the pool, there are a few things you should consider as pools reopen and workouts resume.

Safety First

You’ve already read 50 million articles about social distancing and adhering to Centers of Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for minimizing virus risks, so I won’t belabor that point. Just be courteous and safe.

But swimming is a unique physical activity. If you haven’t been in the water, your body requires time to re-acclimate, even if you’ve been emulating swimming motions in your daily workouts. Let’s ease back into it, shall we?


After an extended absence, proper form may be elusive, increasing the chance of shoulder injury. Suppress your impatience and recognize the advantages of focusing your initial workouts on recovering and refining your technical skills. This is the perfect time to incrementally ramp up your exercise intensity while simultaneously improving your efficiency.

Rather than measuring workout success by the level of suffering achieved, track the number of stroke improvement tips you can glean from your coach. Do more drills. Minimize stroke counts, focus on alignment, and dial in your cadence and timing.

Swim smarter, not harder.


The most successful athletes are supremely attentive to the signals received from their bodies. Not only do they sense how their bodies minimize resistance and apply propulsive forces as they move through the water, they also tune into how joints and muscles respond to effort.

  • The exertion continuum—Warm up at a relaxed pace while monitoring your perceived flexibility and elasticity limits. In other words, if something feels tight, give it more time to warm up before pushing hard. Range of motion typically decreases during time away from the pool, so take your time working your way back to full extensions. Add effort only when you’re confident that all the body parts involved feel warm and loose.
  • DOMS—Delayed onset muscle soreness provides unmistakably accurate feedback on whether you’ve worked too hard. Overdo the effort and you’ll get sore. Be too lazy, and you won’t feel a thing. The problem is the delayed onset part; the feedback only appears in the days following your misjudgment of what you can handle. It’s too late to adjust. Fortunately, most Masters athletes have life experience to call upon. We’ve been sore in the past and should be able to remember how good we felt during exercise that left us hobbling in pain a few days later. Tap into those memories to find the sweet spot for the intensity and duration of your first workouts.

The bottom line is that it’s better to err with a ramp-up curve that’s too flat rather than one that’s too steep. Taking it a tad too easy risks a slight delay in your return to full-blast training tolerance, but overstressing yourself means significant time lost to soreness or injury. Invest your back-to-the-water enthusiasm in honing your swim skills rather than in misguided machismo. As a wise man once said (a few paragraphs ago), swim smarter not harder.

The Fun Factor

Take a moment to be grateful for the opportunity to swim again, regardless how new restrictions might complicate the experience. Review the reasons you love this sport, and let those joys overwhelm any frustrations you might face. Keep your distance, but don’t neglect the connections that are such an important part of Masters. Share your excitement through social media, and relish the sweet nirvana of soggy fatigue you feel at the end of your workout.

Each athlete has a unique path back to “normal.” The optimal effort for your individual rehab is influenced by:

  • Age—If your comeback after college was 30 years ago, chances are good that you won’t be able to restore your speed and fitness as rapidly as you did back then. It’s OK to start with low yardage, take extra rest, and get out early if needed. The important thing is to get started, and then increase the distance and effort as swim fitness returns.
  • Genetics—Some people are blessed with bodies that recover quickly. Those of us who aren’t must remain patient and committed.
  • Hiatus activities—If you did significant dryland training, stretching, and cardio work while out of the water, you should be able to regain your previous swim fitness within a few weeks.

Here are some suggestions for having fun as you rediscover your Masters mindset.

  • Test set—Record your performance for a set you can repeat each week to track your progress. 10 x 100s freestyle on the fastest sendoff you can hold is a great one, as is a timed straight 1000 or 400 IM. Expect to improve for a couple of weeks, with a likely plateau (or even downhill slide) before improving again.
  • Set new goals—Hey, this season is different than any one you’ve had before, so why not celebrate that difference? Pick a new stroke or distance to swim in competition (200 butterfly, anyone?). Attend a meet in a different city. Commit to flipping every turn in workout, etc.
  • Personal virtual meet—Challenge a rival to time one event each week and compare that time with yours. Reach out to an old high school competitor or to former college teammates. Incorporate time handicaps if necessary or set a goal for a group of friends to target a combined time for a virtual relay.

There are aches, pains, and disappointments with any return to swimming after a prolonged layoff, but the rewards continue long after the annoyances are forgotten. Good luck, stay healthy, and swim with a smile!


  • Technique and Training


  • Training